Triangle developer frustrated

A Chicago-area developer who announced in October that he wanted to put a sports bar and apartments in the old Triangle Building downtown has suggested there might be a conspiracy to thwart his plans – which now include purchase of a downtown restaurant.

“Some people are saying that some people do not want us to come in,” said Suresh Mekala of Bloomingdale, Ill., in a phone interview last week.

He cited difficulties with contractors and a service professional, “bureaucratic issues” with the city and difficulties obtaining a bank loan, although he has “no clue” why anyone “would stop us trying to do a good thing,” he said.

City and economic development officials and his own local architect said his project has widespread support and that he’s mistaken about covert opposition.

“I thought it was going to be easy,” said Mekala, who first came to public notice when he outlined his plans at a City Council meeting. “[But] it’s very difficult to start a business in Altoona.”

Contractors have been rude and uninterested and have proposed prices two and three times what is reasonable, he said.

His architect has overcharged, he said.

The city has been “impossible,” failing to issue one-time permits for alternative contractors he’s chosen to work on the project, he said.

And the board of a bank in a neighboring county canceled an already-approved loan to buy the former Le Bistro restaurant as a location for the sports bar – leaving the Triangle available for an ice cream shop and apartments, he said.

Complicating matters further, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board won’t commit to allowing the transfer of his liquor license from the Triangle to Le Bistro until he buys the latter, he said.

“We are at a crossroads,” Mekala said. “It’s Catch-22.”

He had expected to spend up to $350,000 on the Triangle Building but found that plumbing and electrical work alone would cost $230,000, he said.

“I could build new in a vacant space for that amount,” he said.

He’s learned that he might need to spend $42,000 just for fire-protection sprinklers, he said.

Some in his organization have suggested that some “high net-worth individuals” might be trying to redirect him to use their space, he said.

Contacted late last week, city officials said they hadn’t known of Mekala’s disappointment.

“We rolled out the red carpet for him,” said Planning Director Lee Slusser. “If there’s any problem we can fix, we’d be happy to do it.”

Early on, there were complications with interior demolition, after a contractor for Mekala obtained a permit, then surrendered the work to another contractor, rendering the first permit invalid, according to Slusser.

But since then, the city has approved Mekala’s architectural drawings, while two weeks ago, it made the building, mechanical, plumbing and electrical permits available for pickup, said Rebecca Brown of the planning office.

The city gave permission for Mekala’s own crew to do basic construction, she said.

The heating, ventilation and air conditioning permit can be picked up by any HVAC contractor registered with the city. There are no competency qualifications, she said.

The plumbing and electrical permits must be picked up by city-registered – and therefore qualified – master plumbers and electricians, she said.

At one point, an electrician from Morrisons Cove whom Mekala planned to hire applied for a one-time permit – one per year is allowed – but lacked the necessary license as a master in another municipality, Brown said.

The city offered him the opportunity to take a test to qualify as a master, but he hasn’t come to take the test, Slusser said.

Initially, the city provided Mekala a list of contractors licensed in the city – general, mechanical, plumbing and electrical, Brown said.

There were “pages and pages,” she said.

“[But] it’s not our job to make sure he gets a contractor he’s happy with,” Slusser said.

Mekala has a software business based in the Chicago area and a news TV channel, software business, travel agencies and restaurants in India, plus business interests in Singapore, where he’s involved with a client bank, he said in October.

He’s “an amazing, nice guy, a remarkable person,” said Judy Coutts of Altoona, his architect.

But he underestimated the costs of the Triangle project, she said.

“We told him from the very beginning his budget was very tight,” she said. “Too low for what he wanted to get accomplished.”

Mekala may have underestimated the difficulty here because of a project he did in Johnstown, where the building involved was probably in better shape, she said.

“Based on that experience, I think they thought, ‘This is fun, this is easy,'” she said. “But they picked a harder building.”

Development is hard and obstacles inevitable, she said.

“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it,” she said.

Still, the contractors Mekala ended up connecting with “did a superb job of working with him to align the scope of work with his budget,” she said.

Some, by contrast, might have shied away because members of Mekala’s group “have a hard accent,” making communication difficult, she said.

“But I can’t say people are prejudiced,” she said.

Irv Seltzer, whom Mekala didn’t mention by name, but who is the owner of many downtown buildings and much available space, said he knows nothing about a move to thwart Mekala or redirect his attention.

“From all I’ve heard, everyone is supportive of this effort,” he said.

He himself is supportive, and especially pleased at Mekala’s plans to buy Le Bistro, he said.

The same is true for Patrick Miller, executive vice president of Altoona-Blair County Development Corp., whose financial help Mekala has declined.

“From an economic development perspective, we would welcome having this group rethink and reopen Le Bistro,” he said.

Mekala needs to talk to city officials, Slusser said, “so we can work with him to overcome [these problems]” he said.

Coutts still considers her relationship with Mekala to be “positive.”

“I really like Suresh a lot,” she said.